Recently I read a BBC article that both confused and intrigued me. The article was about a Stanford University engineering team and their creation, the “first computer built entirely with carbon nanotubes.” (Morgan, 2013) This reminded me of graphene, a singular sheet of covalently bonded carbon atoms in hexagonal rings, that had come up in class. Remember that graphite is one of the allotropes of carbon along with diamond and the C60 fullerene and that graphene is a single layer of the carbon sheets that make up graphite. (Graphene: World-leading Research and Development, 2012) Interestingly enough, India and Vhristi have both written on graphene, and nanotubes respectively, but through wider and more introductory lens; I hope to focus my research on the application of nanotubes in electronics. Thus with this foundation, I decided to investigate further the one claim the article brought up that really fascinated me, that carbon nanotubes could eventually replace silicon chips as the linchpin of modern electronics. (Hsu, 2013)
Single-walled carbon nanotubes are sheets of graphene rolled up into a cylinder; depending on the direction in which the sheet is rolled, the nanotube will possess different physical properties. (Nanocyl, 2009) Extreme strength, up a hundred times stronger than steel, while maintaining lightness is one of the characteristics that have made scientists so interested in carbon nanotubes. (Bonsor & Strickland, 2007) The other is the ability to act as a semiconductor, a substance with conductivity less than that of most metals but greater than that of an insulator. (Forbus) Currently, the heart of the ubiquitous tablets, computers, and smartphones is the silicon transistor, a semiconductor switch that allow for the control of electrical signals. (Brain, 2001) To keep up with society’s demand for smaller, lighter, and faster devices, engineers have had to shrink transistors. (Hsu, 2013) However as silicon transistors get smaller, with the smallest being Intel’s 22-nanometer Ivy Bridge model, more of the energy that goes in is transformed into heat and wasted. This physical limitation has prompted research into carbon nanotubes as an alternative because of their minute size and “energy-efficiency at small sizes.” (Hsu, 2013)
So, after establishing that carbon nanotubes, theoretically, could outclass the silicon chip I went back to the BBC article to ask: what does this ‘landmark computer’ really mean for the future of carbon nanotube technology? While the computer the Stanford team, led by Subhasish Mitra and H.S. Philip Wong, created is only an elementary prototype that can only count to 32, it is definitive proof a computer could be made solely from nanotubes. (Morgan, 2013) The process in which they arrived at the computer also made great strides in use of nanotubes in electronics. The team aligned the naturally misaligned nanotubes in chips with only 0.5% disparity, designed an algorithm to bypass those that were skewed, and vaporized the “metallic” nanotubes that always conducted electricity. (Shulaker, Hills, Patil, Wei, Chen & Wong, 2013) Although these improvements have streamlined the process of creating carbon nanotube based nanoelectronics the 8000-nanometer transistors are still far from being able to compete economically or technically with silicon chips. (Palmer, 2012)
Given that silicon chips will eventually reach their limits, this test has shown that carbon nanotubes are progressing as a viable replacement for the current industry standard. (Hsu, 2013) An economic implication of this development is that if the nanotubes keep making significant progress, this possibly more efficient option to the silicon chip will be met with great demand in our technology driven society from firms and governments, the former to produce the next-generation of electronics, and the latter to improve domestic technological and military infrastructure. Just like the silicon chip allowed for a surge in technological innovation, carbon nanotubes could too engender its own rush of progress. A more short-term implication of this auspicious advancement will be reenergized investment and resources dedicated to nanotube research by firms and laboratories not wanting to be beaten to the possible patent of the next half century. But for carbon nanotubes to make the transition from laboratory to factory to store shelf will be costly and time-consuming. One must consider the economic and technological quandaries that will undoubtedly arise as this technology advances, as with all innovations. How can we mass-produce carbon nanotube transistors? How do we maintain a high quality when dealing with such tiny basic components? Each is a question that must be resolved before this new technology hits the shelves.
But I have to say, after reading about the nanotube computer I felt genuinely excited. I know that many obstacles stand in the way of carbon nanotube devices, especially the development of a cost-effective means of mass-producing nanotube transistors. On the surface this seems like a classic case of a scientifically sound theory without any means of practical execution but in this case I have hope. Ever since I have remembered I’ve been waiting for that futuristic advancement that really ushers in a new technological age like home computers and mobile phones did in the 1990s. If this it, I have hope that some combination of entrepreneurship, capitalism, and scientific curiosity will see carbon nanotube technology commercially possible, if not in our smart houses, supercomputers, and flying cars.
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Brain, M. (2001, April 25). How semiconductors work. Retrieved from http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/diode1.htm
Forbus, K. D. (n.d.). http://www.qrg.northwestern.edu/projects/vss/docs/power/3-whats-a-semiconductor.html. Retrieved from http://www.qrg.northwestern.edu/projects/vss/docs/power/3-whats-a-semiconductor.html
Hsu, J. (2013, September 26). Carbon nanotube computer hints at future beyond silicon semiconductors. Scientific American, Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=carbon-nanotube-computer-hints-at-future-beyond-silicon
Morgan, J. (2013, September 25). First computer made of carbon nanotubes is unveiled. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24232896
Nanocyl. (2009). Single-wall nanotubes (swnt). Retrieved from http://www.nanocyl.com/en/CNT-Expertise-Centre/Carbon-Nanotubes/Single-wall-Nanotubes-SWNT
Palmer, J. (2012, October 12). Carbon nanotubes fit by the thousands onto a chip. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20086402
Shulaker, M. M., Hills, G., Patil, N., Wei, H., Chen, H. -., & Wong, H. -. P. (2013). Carbon nanotube computer. Nature, (501), 526-530. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v501/n7468/full/nature12502.html
(Graphene: World-leading Research and Development, 2012)The University of Manchester.(2012). Graphene is going to revolutionize the 21st Century. Retrieved 24 December, 2012, fromhttp://www.graphene.manchester.ac.uk.
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